The Magdalene Sisters

This is a fictionalized account of the horrors that actually took place at the “Magdalene laundries” in Ireland.  Margaret is raped by her cousin at a family wedding.  Bernadette mildly flirts with boys.  Rose is an unwed mother.  For so “dishonoring” their families, they are sent to be indefinitely confined, working as slaves for Catholic nuns.  The girls are beaten, mentally abused, sexually molested, and stripped of dignity and rights.  An ancient story of the crimes of the Medieval church?  Nope.  This is the 1960s.

Many of the films I review on this site—that either were intended by the filmmakers to promote a religious point of view or show the actions of religious figures—can be fun to watch.  You can have a good party playing Left Behind movies, laughing at the behaviors and beliefs on display.  But there’s nothing to laugh at with The Magdalene Sisters.  There is no fun to be had.  This is the ugly truth of organized religion.  It’s painful to watch.  It’s also important.  The Catholic Magdalene laundries continued until 1996.  This isn’t history; it’s current events.  I can’t think of a film that’s made me angrier.

Peter Mullan wrote the screenplay based on the accounts of survivors.  Dates and names have been changed, and lesser characters are composites, but the general events happened.  He didn’t even use the worst cases, thinking those would be too extreme for the film.

It starts at a wedding, with smiling faces and traditional Irish music performed by the local priest.  Margaret is speaking with her cousin when he grabs for her.  She pushes him away, and he locks the door and rapes her.  After, we hear only the music as Margaret tells a friend what happened.  She tells parents who speak to the cousin and the priest.  They blame her.  It’s best to prepare yourself for an uncomfortable ride, since this is as cheerful as it gets.

Margaret, Bernadette, and Rose (who is forced to change her name to Patricia because they already have a Rose) meet Sister Bridget together and are terrified, as they should be.  The sister is the worst kind of sadist, a believer.  She is sure of the girl’s inferiority and their sin.  Bernadette pleads that she’s never been with a boy, but Sister Bridget only responds, “But you wanted to be.”  In this place, all men are assumed to be base creatures who cannot avoid temptation and women (except nuns who have removed themselves from the world) are nothing but those temptations.  With this philosophy, it isn’t surprising that the nuns have little concern with the physical and mental pain of their charges.

The girls work long hours in a laundry, eat a dull and insufficient diet, and are not allowed to speak accept when given permission (such as when reading The Bible at meals). They are beaten often for the slightest offense, and have their heads shaved (including eyebrows and lashes) for trying to escape.  While far from the most extreme indignity the girls undergo, one of the nuns’ games sums up their existence.  Stripped naked for exercise, the girls are lined up so that two sisters can compare them and laugh.  They pick out who has the largest breasts and butt.  And pull two girls out of line to better choose which is hairiest.

But the nuns aren’t the only villains here.  Absolute power, the belief that God is behind them and that sin is everywhere, has made them into monsters, but they couldn’t do this on their own.  Equally to blame are parents and teachers, who have bought the religious party line, and are eager to toss their daughters and students into hell for their real or imagined transgressions.  When one girl escapes, her father brings her back, whipping her, and then yelling that all the girls are whores.  Their are no helpful policemen, questioning social workers, or crusading politicians.  Everyone plays along.  There’s no one willing, or interested in changing the punishment for these penitent, fallen girls.

I’d love to say that it all ends with troops moving in, the priests and nuns led away in chains, and the buildings demolished, but this is reality and that didn’t happen.  It isn’t as dark as it could be (the stories do come from survivors after all), but you won’t find any emotional satisfaction here.

The film looks goods, and the acting is superb, but I’m not completely comfortable with the movie telling a fictionalized account instead of stating exactly what happened.  The story has a set beginning, middle, and pat ending, but the reality is more complex, and doesn’t fit into the narrative structure.  But we have narratives dealing with The Holocaust, so my complaint is a minor one.  Besides, the region 1 DVD comes with Steve Humphries’s documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, which allows four women to speak for themselves about the horrors they endured.

The Catholic Church and religious supporters have attacked the film, not on its facts (since there are still survivors who can testify to the events, and even the Sisters of Mercy have apologized in a vague way, for the crimes of their order), but rather because it doesn’t depict some good clergy members or point out the nice attributes of the vicious nuns.  That’s a frightening position to take: that the torture that these people inflicted is no more important than their hobbies or some charity work they might have performed.  I’m sure many of the criminals of history had a few good qualities.  Caligula may have been very kind to an orphan or two.  That hardly negates his crimes.  The most important thing to know about the Magdalene nuns was the terrors they are responsible for.  Moreover, this isn’t their story.  This is the story of the victims.  When those girls were being whipped, it is unlikely that they were dwelling on the good deeds of their jailers.  This criticism is disrespectful to the women who suffered.  Unfortunately, it isn’t surprising.

The Magdalene Sisters documents a dark chapter from the Catholic Church’s past. How many times has it been necessary to utter that phrase?  How many times does it have to be said before people stop supporting that institution, and others like it?